The Cleveland Cavaliers are in fire sale mode right now, or they may as well be.
The reigning Eastern Conference Champions currently sport a 10-41 record, which is good for the worst record in the entire league. The Cavs have already made a few moves, trading away the likes of Kyle Korver and George Hill for future assets. Things are more than likely to continue to trend downwards for Cleveland, so they may as well cut their losses now while they still can.
Outside of Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr and Ante Zizic, no one on the squad should be off limits. Luckily for general manager Koby Altman, the Cavaliers at least have a better salary cap situation than they did back when LeBron was in town.
Kevin Love instantly comes to mind, but he’s been out for almost the entire season. There should be plenty of interested suitors for JR Smith, but only because his contract next season is guaranteed for a little less than $4 million. The same could be said for Alec Burks and Rodney Hood and their expiring contracts.
In a market where teams are trying to conserve their cap space, odds are Jordan Clarkson, John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova are staying put at least until next season.
Then there’s Tristan Thompson.
Ever since he agreed to a five-year, $82 million extension back in 2015, Thompson has received much scorn for having one of the worst contracts in the NBA. Three years have since been shed off that deal. With only two years left, Thompson, while still being overpaid at almost $17.5 million a year and $18.5 million the next, can be a useful cog on a playoff team.
Since LeBron’s departure, Thompson is having himself quite the renaissance. Thompson is currently averaging 11.5 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 0.8 steals, all of which are either career-highs or the best he’s had since before LeBron came back to “The Land.” Now, a rise in numbers is to be expected because his role was due to expand with King James out of the picture, but still – Thompson has played well enough that teams should at least consider trading for him.
The 11.1 rebounds he averages is good for 11th in the league, with his offensive rebounding numbers of 4.4 per game are good for fourth in the league. Thompson may not be worth the money he is getting paid, but what he does well on the court, he does very well.
His playoff experience also could help a team who is trying to do some damage in the postseason. Thompson played a very important role on the Cavaliers’ four consecutive trips to the finals, including winning a title. If these increased numbers are not a mirage, then Thompson could be even more impactful for a playoff team than he ever was for the Cavaliers.
The concerns surrounding what Thompson can do and how much he is getting paid to do are valid. Paying over $17 million for a guy whose lone specialty is rebounding would not look like the brightest move. Thankfully, rebounding is not Tristan Thompson’s lone specialty.
Remember how Kendrick Perkins’ one elite skill in the NBA was being able to stop Dwight Howard one-on-one? Think of the same with Thompson, only with his Dwight Howard being Al Horford.
Coming into last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, Thompson was struggling to find minutes in Cleveland’s rotations. He only averaged 14.5 minutes in Cleveland’s first series against Indiana – with most of them coming from the 35 minutes he played in Game 7 – then averaged 17.3 minutes in their second series against Toronto – with most of them coming from the 26 minutes he played in Game 1.
Then, Game 1 of the Conference Finals happened. It didn’t go well for Cleveland, to say the least. Boston steamrolled them from beginning to end, winning 108-83, with Horford leading the way. Big Al was matched up with Kevin Love at center, and he took all the advantage he could out of it.
Horford finished with a stat line of 20 points, six assists, four rebounds, two blocks, shot 8/11 from the field including 2.4 from three and was plus-17. In that time, he held Love to 17 points on 5/14 shooting including 1-for-4 from three and was minus-13.
From that point onward, Thompson was inserted into the starting lineup as the center. That wound up making all the difference in the series. Horford never came close to that dominant for the rest of the series. With Thompson at center, Horford averaged 12.4 points on 42.4 percent shooting including 28.6 percent from three.
Perhaps Thompson’s re-insertion into the starting lineup just happened to coincide with Horford’s decreased numbers. A few statistics provided by old friend Ben Dowsett would say otherwise.
Final Al Horford per-36-minute numbers for the series…
With Tristan Thompson ON COURT (173 mins): 8.7 pts, 7.1 reb, 3.1 asts, 33% FG, 22% 3P, Celtics -6.2 NetRtg
With Tristan Thompson OFF COURT (76 mins): 25.1 pts, 9.0 rebs, 3.8 asts, 67% FG, 44% 3P, Celtics +23.8 NetRtg
— Ben Dowsett (@Ben_Dowsett) May 28, 2018
Also, before that series against the Cavaliers, Horford was averaging 17 points on 53 percent shooting including 36 percent from three his previous two playoff series. The Celtics were a plus-19 overall with Horford in those series. The Celtics were a plus-13.1 with Horford on the court against Cleveland, but that is still a steep drop-off.
Horford’s struggles against Thompson have been the case for the past couple of seasons. Although last season’s conference finals are the most indicative evidence of Thompson shutting down Horford, data from previous playoff matchups show more of the same.
You may be thinking, ‘Well, so what? Why is it so important that Thompson has proven he can shut down Horford in a playoff series?’ The answer to that is simple: Because Al Horford is the one guy who the Celtics need at his best in order to succeed.
This writer already penned an article detailing why Horford was the Celtics’ most important player. He won’t grab you with his stats, but his three-point shooting and defensive versatility create so many matchup problems for their opponents. This season, Al has struggled a bit – which is one of the under-the-radar reasons why Boston has disappointed so far – but now he’s starting to look like the Horford from last season.
In his last five games, Al has averaged 18.8 points and 8.8 rebounds on 66.1 percent shooting, including 47.1 percent from three, and the Celtics have been plus-5.4 with him on the court. If he has regained his form from last season, expect him to have his best stuff when the playoffs come around. When he does, that’s where having Tristan Thompson could really help.
Sure, the Celtics haven’t exactly looked as good as anticipated, but they’re still making the playoffs anyway as long as they don’t suffer any untimely injuries before the postseason. The lowest they’ll probably wind up with is the fifth seed. Who knows how they’ll look when the playoffs start?
This limits interested parties because Horford plays in the East, and the Western Conference have bigger, Golden State Warrior-sized problems to worry about. For the Eastern Conference, there are teams who do have players on contracts that could match up in a Tristan Thompson trade without sacrificing cap flexibility.
Toronto fits the mold. The Raptors have Jonas Valanciunas, CJ Miles and Fred VanVleet among others who they could trade for Tristan Thompson. Toronto has been better than Boston, but what could really insure them beating the Celtics in a hypothetical playoff series is having Thompson to stop Horford in his tracks.
Brooklyn also fits the mold. They have Allen Crabbe’s contract alone to match up with Thompson’s contract. They have been on a tear as of late, and things should only get better when Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert return from injury. Those two coming back should also reduce Crabbe’s minutes. The Nets are already standing out as the team no one wants to face in the postseason. If they get Thompson, that would certainly frighten the team that basically ruined them.
What hurts Thompson’s value at the moment is that he is currently nursing a foot injury that’s bothered him through most of the season. He won’t be back until after the trade deadline passes, which means trading for him would be risky. Then again, winning a championship requires taking risks. Acquiring Thompson could provide many rewards.
Let’s rewind it back to Kendrick Perkins. The Perk experiment may have failed in OKC, but he still played a big role in them reaching the NBA Finals in 2012. That same low-post defense that worked so well against Howard played a role in limiting Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Tim Duncan. That doesn’t justify how much they paid him in that time, but he still did his part on their run to the Finals.
It’s the same thing with Thompson. Even if his defense is geared more towards stopping Horford specifically, that can make a huge difference in a playoff series. Even with all their struggles, the Celtics are not to be trifled with come playoff time. Thompson would be there to prevent trifling of any kind.
If Thompson proves valuable against Horford yet again in the playoffs, then he’d be worth every penny.
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